You might decide to watch Gulabo Sitabo for its artsy and old-world portrayal of Lucknow, the nawab is infused in the aurora of the film, or you might watch it for the witty banter of Ayushmaan Khurana and Amitabh Bachchan. Both excellent actors who have created a name for themselves in the industry, but you will end up getting engulfed by the retro charisma of the film, and the heart of which is Fatima mahal.
This Dramedy isn’t just a regular take of a scrupulous lower-middle-class tenant and a cantankerous landlord. It’s rather a love story, and a feminist discourse personified by Fatima mahal as a character, the leading lady, and the star of the film whose name itself rings a feminine bell.
Sroorjit Sircar’s masterpiece is not a regular Bollywood movie, despite the stellar cast and promising light-hearted plot, it lacks pace and the typical masala that is indigenous to Bollywood. So this movie is more for the lovers of a particular niche, who appreciate artsy films and ones who go beyond the entertainment quotient scavenging to drive a greater meaning. Don’t get me wrong, Juhi Chaturvedi’s crisp dialogues and the screenplay is a treat in itself.
Amitabh Bachchan with his hunched back and prosthetic nose has given a memorable performance as a landlord who considers his tenants nothing but vermin, forever waging wars on them. His tussle of power with Ayushmaan Khurana’s Bankey, a little dense but the scheming tenant, one whose obstinacy goes beyond measure is engrossing, and chuckle-worthy at times. But for a conventional cinema audience, this might be a bit boring or slow.
Now that I have addressed the flaw, I think I can move on to what makes it worth the watch. The film has multiple layers to it, if you look at it from one angle, it’s an eccentric story of a landlord, and a tenant both engaged in a fierce fight to outwit and outmaneuver each other to gain control of Fatima Mahal. From another point of view, it’s a love story of the unreciprocated love that Mirza has for his beloved crumbling dilapidated mansion. And from a third perspective, it’s a story of feminism, with strong-willed female characters, although lacking screen time but not agency juxtaposed with the otherwise old-world theme of the film.
As the first perspective is quite apparent, discussing the second perspective, the film is opened by a tale of two characters Gulabo and Sitabo who share no lost love represented by the two puppets and later the protagonists. We see that being a sketchy and scrooge character Amitabh Bachchan’s Mirza has only married Begum for her property.
He is not highly respected in the eyes of the matriarch who provides him with his allowance, which is supplemented by selling off small and big things often belonging to his tenants. Throaty voice and hunchback are new to the fans of the ever strong build shahensha. His sole purpose in life is to become the sole owner of Fatima Mahal, for which he yearns with his heart and soul, in a rather morbid fashion also hopes and eagerly awaits the death of his wife, Fatima Begum.
Though his intentions lack nobility, one finds himself pitying the grumpy old proprietor. Throughout the course of the film, he goes through many hurdles to try and be with his love, the antagonist of his life ranges from his rather ungrateful and yet another miser Bankey to the Department of Archeology Gyanesh. The unlettered man by hook or crook does everything in his capacity to realize his dream. From roping in a lawyer to get the thumbprints of his wife in her sleep, he does it all. Even the age has bent his back.
He will remain strong enough to undertake an expedition to ensure that no relatives of his wife have any interest in his hundred-year-old mahal. With much gusto, you see that he took his every step towards the realisation of his lifelong love. However in a surprising twist, it’s neither the tenants nor the archaeology department who is able to stop him, but his wife Fatima Begum who has the last laugh by keeping the mahal all or herself and leaving Mirza for her old lover.
This leads us to the second perceptive, which is the subtle yet rich feminist voice this film carries. The fierce and unapologetic Guddo, sister of Bankey, is a treat to watch. She is not just educated but has a strong agency to make sure that she, along with her family, moves only on an upward trajectory of lifestyle and doesn’t get thrown out of their home. For this, she is willing to sleep with the archaeologist and even gives the lawyer a piece of her mind which leaves his awestruck at her legal awareness so much, that he hires her as an assistant.
She doesn’t see her sexuality through the tainted glass of purity. She knows not to associate her dignity with her body. She has a physical relationship with whom she wants and doesn’t even shy away from using sex as a weapon to advance herself. One might say she is the Indian embodiment of Cersei Lannister trapped in a stereotypical male-dominated society.
Bankey’s Girlfriend to shows that she is a resourceful woman who doesn’t wait for a guy to give her his commitment, instead of crying or convincing Bankey, she disposes him off from her life and upgrades to a better guy.
The most powerful female character, however, is Fatima Begum. She chides her husband Mirza each time he plans something devious, she might seem a little lost with her ‘Nehru Ji age’ loop, but you can see even in her 90’s she is smarter than all. When Mirza mixed up the thumbprints, she bandages all her fingers to make sure he can’t get the real prints to transfer her beloved mahal to his name. Her amusing question to Mirza whether she ran with him or actually married him is also a showcase of her ‘unbothered by norms’ nature.
The most dramatic and impressive power move she plays is running away with her old lower at 94 when everyone expected her to die. She probably knew something fishy was going on and decided to reunite with the man who actually loved her. Her news of elopement, as well as the sale of the house to her old lover, stuns everyone else who were till then scrambling and fighting over builders money for the sale of Fatima mahal and were dealing with the archaeologist. The real checkmate thrown by Begum shows that there is no age or era for independence, and one doesn’t need to be a puppet in a man’s hand rather hold the reins of her old destiny.